Sangheiwu: the dialect of Shanghai

Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: April 20th, 2012 | Updated: August 30th, 2012 | Comments
China history, China dynasties He's that guy you love to run into at the Forbidden City or out hiking the Great Wall, full of nuggets of fascinating information and anecdotes collected magpie-like and retained in his encyclopedic brainhe's the one who told me about the Lady of Lugu Lake and the secret behind Chinese false gates. In an effort to channel some of that wisdom we'll be working our way, in no particular order, through a few of the captivating characters and entrancing tales of China's long and illustrious history so next time, you can be the one to say: "Did you know.... " >>> The lady behind the counter at the little supermarket had a zoned-out look of boredom, simply registering a presence in front of her while she rang up my items. When she dryly told me my total, the words sounded familiar, yet completely unintelligible. "多少?"  I asked, in Mandarin Chinese. How much? She finally looked up at the confused foreigner before her and repeated the amount, this time in Mandarin. As I put my items in my bag, I heard the same exchange happen again with the woman behind me, only this time in reverse: the total, given in Mandarin, was met with the same confused look and the check out assistant quickly reverted to the Shanghainese (Shànghǎihuà, 上海话) dialect she'd been speaking before. Although Mandarin Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà, 普通话) is now the official language of the PRC, dialects remain a symbol of culture and the mother tongue for many across China. In Shanghai, use of the local dialect is seen as a point of pride, with many using it instead of Mandarin whenever they can. In spite of this and efforts by the Shanghai government to save it, the Shanghai dialect, "Sangheiwu," is in decline....

A brief history of the tongue

Shanghainese is part of the Wu dialect family (Wúyǔ, 吴语), considered to be Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu as well as parts of Anhui, Fujian and Jiangxi. It was once the delicate Suzhou dialect that was held to be the most prestigious member of the Wu group, dominating Chinese studies of the dialect, but the rise of Shanghai (and its importance to foreigners) rendered Shanghainese the focus for a great number of linguists, particularly those from the West and Japan. Historically, dialects have moved from one region of China to another accompanying a population displaced by invasion, war and upheaval, or the search for better fortune. After the Communists won the Chinese Civil War, a number of Shanghainese fled their hometown, many settling in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Those in Hong Kong kept their mother tongue alive when talking to each other even as they learned to the local dialect, Cantonese. Although it's easy to miss among the atmosphere and plot of the 2000 film In the Mood for Love by Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-raised filmmaker Wang Kar Wai (Wáng Jiāwèi, 王家卫), Maggie Cheung's character Su Li-zhen speaks Shanghainese in some scenes with her landlady, another displaced Shanghaier.

Disappearing Shanghainese

Despite the pride many Shanghainese hold in their local dialect, it remains in decline. A 2010 attempt by the government to find "pure" speakers of Shanghainese fell short of expectations, though the project continues this year. Like other Chinese dialects, it lacks a phonetic written language and the Shanghainese spoken in the home is largely not backed by a study of the language in school (in fact, many Chinese schools discourage use of any dialect at all). In addition, the economic rise of Shanghai has resulted in waves of migrant residents from elsewhere and large numbers of foreigners coming to Shanghai. An article by CCTV quotes a 23-year-old Shanghainese as saying, "Because of my work, I use more Mandarin and English, bust [sic] less and less of the Shanghai dialect. Sometimes, I feel confused and I will add some Mandarin words when speaking the Shanghai dialect." Preservation has a practical side. Many elderly residents of Shanghai have difficulty communicating in Mandarin and may have some issues understanding it as well. Huadong Hospital in Shanghai's Jing'an district began giving doctors lessons in Shanghainese after complaints from patients that their doctors couldn't understand them. In the same spirit, bus lines in Shanghai began adding Shanghainese to their automated bus announcements. One Shanghainese programmer even created a Shanghainese input method for Android phones. Not all attempts to revive Shanghainese have been as helpful. As Shanghaiist pointed out,  Shanghai Airlines' introduction to Shanghai in Shanghainese will only be understood by those least likely to need it. An earlier move to add Shanghainese alongside English and Mandarin to metro announcements, which had a number of detractors, was apparently shelved. Outside of the practical reasons for preserving the language, proponents look at it as an element of cultural identity with some schools even teaching Shanghainese as a special course.

When in Shanghai, speak as the Shanghainese do

Along with efforts to preserve the local dialect, efforts are being made to learn the Shanghai dialect, both by non-local Chinese and by foreigners. For many foreigners living in China, already faced with learning a foreign language, it can be difficult to even separate the two, particularly when Shanghainese is mixed with Mandarin or the Mandarin is accented. A local teammate of former Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka, recently acquired by local soccer (football) club Shanghai Shenhua, was surprised when the recently-arrived Anelka began learning the differences between the common tongue and the local dialect. Despite the difficulty of learning Shanghainese, the large number of foreigners living in Shanghai has helped to produce enough demand to create a surprising number of resources for learning the dialect. Here are just a few:
  • Shanghainese soundboard—Language blog Sinosplice has had this simple and extremely helpful soundboard up for a while.
  • haggling and getting the best hairy crab.
  • 2010 Shanghai Expo, China Daily put out a series of lessons on the dialect to teach the world a little about Shanghai.
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